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Tuesday, 16 September 2003
Page: 20137

Mr JOHN COBB (2:46 PM) —My question is to the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Transport and Regional Services. Would the minister inform the House of the health and education benefits to regional and rural Australia that will arise from the introduction of broadband telecommunications services? What impediments needed to be overcome to enable this project to proceed in areas like my electorate of Parkes?

Mr ANDERSON (Minister for Transport and Regional Services) —I thank the honourable member for his question and note, I have to say with some approval, his attention to some areas that are of real concern to Australians at the moment, that I think they want to see us talking about in this place. I have a snapshot of a very interesting way in which the delivery of health, education and telecommunications can be brought together to produce better service delivery outcomes at a much reduced cost for Australians, particularly in regional areas. The snapshot relates to the provision by the Australian government of $5½ million from the National Communications Fund towards a quite revolutionary project in the north-west New England area of New South Wales. If it could be taken up and spread—though that would require the cooperation of the New South Wales state Labor government—it could bring similar benefits to the member for Parkes' electorate, to vast areas of other people's electorates and to the people who live in them.

Telstra has won this particular contract, which involves a project incorporating the New England Area Health Service, the New England Institute of TAFE and the University of New England. It will deliver a high-speed broadband telecommunications network to eight TAFE sites, 10 University of New England sites and 31 health sites in the region, including towns from Tenterfield to Pilliga and from Mungindi to Walcha. This was the brainchild of the previous member for New England, who worked very hard to get it up and running. I am delighted to say that it is now coming together. So no less than 33 towns across an area probably the size of many European countries will benefit from this broadband network.

It is expected to save the New England Area Health Service alone more than $800,000 in communication costs and $200,000 in travel costs a year. That is a cut of 45 per cent in their telecommunications budget alone. At the same time, it brings quite astonishing new service delivery outcomes to the region. For example, it brings direct access to specialists via videoconferencing with a definition level so high that I am advised that it would be possible, at least in theory—and we trust that this will be delivered in practical outcomes shortly—for somebody in a place as remote as Mungindi, a one-doctor town, coming to the local GP with, say, a skin problem which might be related to a skin cancer and looks a bit worrying, to have that checked by a specialist as far away as Tamworth, Wagga or, potentially, Sydney or even New York and possibly cleaned up then and there. They are astonishing service outcomes that are life saving and dramatically more economical than what are currently available.

It will also allow young people to gain access to educational opportunities, tutorials, lectures or whatever via high-quality video-conferencing. It will give the areas the ability to attract and retain GPs, allied health workers and specialists, because they will have the backup and support they need and the practical ability to spend a lot more time out of motor cars and communicating via video hook-ups and so forth. It means that this is quite revolutionary and ground-breaking.

Despite all the obvious benefits, including to the New South Wales Treasury, guess who would not give it their full support? The New South Wales government. The New England Area Health Service had to borrow $3 million so that they could save the New South Wales government a whole lot of money. But it does exemplify this government's partnership approach to using new technologies to giving better service, better education and better health outcomes at lower cost to country people. It is an outstanding example of what can be achieved by cooperation. If we could only get for the member for Parkes the help of the New South Wales government and get it serious about a partnership approach, we could roll this out right across the nation.